Outreach Event: Thought Suppression vs. Mindfulness!

 Irene Tung led the yellow jeep activity based on Wegner's classic white bear psychology study!

 Irene Tung led the yellow jeep activity based on Wegner's classic white bear psychology study!

Infinity, pizza, spiders, shoes, pizza, iPhones, sleep, pizza, code names, iPads, games, pizza... When we asked elementary students to think about anything these were the responses. However, when we asked elementary students to think about anything but a yellow jeep, the kids told us they thought of the yellow jeepabout 100 times in a minute. One child even thought of yellow pizza. Why?

Well, as we explained this past Friday at the PIA Outreach Event coordinated through UCLA's Project Literacy, trying to suppress your thoughts completely backfires (ironic processes theory)! This is especially critical to remember when you are trying to rid yourself of a negative thought, which normally happens under stress. And although these kids were young, and couldn't exactly define stress, when we asked them if they had experienced stress, the majority raised their hand to affirm they had.

Considering the lasting influences of stress on the body's physiology (e.g., cortisol, telomeres, the sympathetic nervous system, the immune system) we decided if the kids were young enough to feel stressed, then it was time to start offering alternative strategies to negative thought suppression: meditation, mindfulness, and thought acceptance.

Cognitive psychology student Nicco Reggente leads a body scan meditation!
Cognitive psychology student Nicco Reggente leads a body scan meditation!

For example, we demonstrated the benefits of thought acceptance through a hands-on demonstration. Some kids were asked to pour baking soda into a clear bowl of water, and we compared this to how negative thoughts act in our minds. As the baking soda (negative thoughts) was dropped in the water (our mind), things got cloudy for a few moments. Stirring the baking soda only made the water cloudier. Yet, if the kids did nothing to the baking soda, eventually the baking soda sunk to the bottom of the bowl, leaving the water clear again. This showed the kids that thoughts can clear naturally, with out any effort, and thus, it might be best to accept that when they experience a negative thought, not to do anything about it. Their negative thoughts will eventually pass with out any effort!

A few kids checking out MRI images that show how the brain benefits from meditation.
A few kids checking out MRI images that show how the brain benefits from meditation.

All in all, the event was a success. We taught youth that strategies such as these can protect the body from stress, as well as enhance neural processes. Ultimately, these strategies will promote both physical and mental health, and guide towards lives of higher quality. This way the kids can get back to thinking about more positive things...like pizza. ;)

PIA Members Leah Lessard, Jenna Cummings, Irene Tung, and Nicco Reggente with the kids from Project Literacy.
PIA Members Leah Lessard, Jenna Cummings, Irene Tung, and Nicco Reggente with the kids from Project Literacy.

***Project Literacy is an after-school program aimed at improving literacy in traditionally low socioeconomic status neighborhoods. We are thankful for the collaboration with their group. Thank you also to all the PIA volunteers for a successful event: Jenna Cummings (Co-Outreach Coordinator), Nicco Reggente (Co-Outreach Coordinator), Irene Tung, and Leah Lessard.